Adam Wren has wanted to write news stories since high school in Ohio.
He was coming of age when the bottom fell out for print news publishing, especially newspapers and magazines. Aspiring news reporters were wondering whether they would become like struggling musicians.
Wren may be a role model for his generation of how to write news and stay out of poverty, even as so many jobs have disappeared in newspapers and magazine publishing.
Wren is not just a story writer. He has entrepreneurial instincts. Go back 150 years, and he likely would have started his own newspaper. He’s always thinking about the next Indiana political story, about Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg or Vice President Mike Pence. He’s also wondering how to sell his growing political knowledge to one more news outlet.
We talked the other day at Starbucks, and he named several current employers: Indianapolis Monthly magazine; Politico; the Daily Beast. A few minutes later in the conversation, he remembered that he’ll being doing a news podcast for Slate. He’s also taught adjunct journalism classes at Butler and IUPUI. He also has a day job as an editor at a marketing firm. So he’s really what we used to call a freelancer, and he is making a good splash at it. He looks at journalism the way his grandfather saw farming – he had a full-time job and did farming on the side for the love of it. Wren has a master’s degree from a top j-school, Northwestern, but has not been able to find that elusive full-time job.
Yet he’s seeing plenty of demand for his services. He has become the go-to freelance journalist to cover the unusual amounts of Hoosier news and influence in national politics.
He’s been reporting in depth on both Mike Pence and Pete Buttigieg, who has jumped to the top tier in the Democratic race to challenge Donald Trump.
Indiana keeps making headlines beyond the presidential race. Sen. Todd Young is running the Senate Republican campaign for 2020. U.S. Rep. Jim Banks of the Fort Wayne area is on a fast track to rise in House Republican leadership and could be a future GOP Senate candidate.
Dan Coats has been director of National Intelligence. Former Eli Lilly boss Alex Azar is secretary of Health and Human Services. Seema Verma is administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, having served under then Gov. Mitch Daniels, then Pence.
It’s been more than a century since Indiana was so influential in national politics. Between the Civil War to World War I the state often had at least one person running on a major party ticket for president or vice president. Indiana was an important swing state in presidential elections and became the home of vice presidents.
Wren sells his services and reporting depth to coastal media outlets who have to look on a map to find South Bend or Fort Wayne.
“This is a unique moment for explaining the Midwest to the coasts,” he says. “The Midwest needs a translator.”
From a presidential handicapping standpoint, Vigo County (Terre Haute) usually votes for whoever will win the presidency, so Wren has another story angle there.
Wren works on news scoops as well as long-form magazine stories, or features and profiles. Sometimes he breaks a scoop to subscribers of his daily blog – Importantville, which is what Trump named South Bend back in 2016.
His wife is a schoolteacher, and they have a baby daughter, so they face the challenge of work-family balance, especially when Wren is traveling for political coverage.
“If you really want to eat, you have to be creative about your streams of income,” he notes.
Long term he has two aspirations – to develop a serious news website for the state, likely a nonprofit. He also wants to be a voice for the Midwest for the big media companies on the east and west coasts. Big shifts in the media landscape work in his favor, with their smaller staffs now and lots of turnover.
He also tries not to take sides in political battles, which are more intense now with the bigger divide between Republicans and Democrats.
“I’m nonpartisan but not neutral,” he says. “As a magazine journalist, you have a voice and can draw conclusions based on reporting. Some readers think I am right of center and others think I am left of center. The biggest compliment from readers is that they can’t figure what my ideology is.”
He also tries to have a sense of humor, but not all readers appreciate it. He did a reverse parachute, mimicking how east coast reporters sometimes come to Indiana to find out what it means to be conservative. Wren went to Brooklyn and Washington, D.C., to look at the “blue bubble” and ask voters if they regretted being for Hillary in 2016. In a Washington restaurant, the management politely kicked him out. He was just having some fun in the Washington Times, showing how big media types can come across in the Midwest. But Esquire writer Charles Pierce gave Wren a “reverse-Pulitzer,” calling Wren’s story a “trash avalanche.”
As Wren tries to figure out the new journalism, he is following a role model of another era, Kansas newspaper editor William Allen White. Starting out as editor of the Emporia Gazette, White also had to put food on the table and started writing articles for the east coast big media in the late 1800s. He developed a following as a freelancer for lots of publications, while living in Emporia and traveling. Presidential candidates stopped in to see him, and he wound up writing books, including an autobiography that offers some of the best first-person history and character sketches in American politics, 1880-1928.
Russ Pulliam is associate editor of The Indianapolis Star.